The UN refugee agency and Myanmar have sparred over the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority at a meeting aimed at tackling the Southeast Asian migrant crisis in Bangkok.
Representatives from 17 nations are meeting in the Thai capital on Friday for talks on the crisis, which has seen thousands of desperate people flee on boats across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea aiming for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
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Myanmar’s delegate to the talks in Bangkok rebuked the UN’s refugee agency for calling on the country to recognise the Muslim Rohingya minority as citizens to stem their exodus from its shores.
More than 3,500 starving migrants have arrived on Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian soil over the past month while the UN estimates there are 2,500 more still feared trapped at sea as the monsoon season approaches.
The vast majority of migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Buddhist majority Myanmar or Bangladeshis trying to escape grinding poverty.
On “this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country”, Myanmar delegate Foreign Ministry Director-General Htin Lynn said in a stern response to a UNHCR plea to address the root causes of the ongoing migration crisis, including the statelessness issue.
Earlier, Volker Turk, the UN’s assistant high commissioner for refugees, said there could be no solution if root causes of the migrant crisis were not addressed.
“This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar towards all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal,” he said.
Myanmar’s government does not recognise the Rohingya – who make up the majority of the migrants involved in the current crisis – as an ethnic group, arguing instead they are really Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognise them as citizens.
According to Human Rights Watch, Rohingyas – who have lived in Myanmar for generations – are victims of an ongoing ethnic cleansing.
The word “Rohingya” did not appear on the invitation to Friday’s meeting, after Myanmar threatened to boycott the talks if it did. The long-persecuted ethnic group were excluded from the latest Myanmar census.
Senior officials absent
Observers say it is unclear how much Friday’s one-day meeting, which is not being attended at a minister level, can achieve on an issue that has dogged the region for years but gone largely ignored by authorities.
Adding to the confusion, Malaysia invited senior regional government officials to a separate emergency meeting on the flow of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Despite the uncertainty, Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Bangkok, said the meeting was seen as a step forward, as the Myanmar government was represented.
“[Representatives at the meeting] are very much focused on helping the people still stranded out at sea,” our correspondent reported, adding that they were looking to coordinate search efforts.
Thailand on Friday said it had given the United States permission to fly surveillance flights over Thai airspace to identify boats carrying migrants as part of the rescue efforts.
While Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to temporarily house migrants that have been rescued, Thailand has so far said it will only assist by offering medical aid at sea.
All the regional parties attending are below minister level, apart from Thailand’s Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.
The US, Switzerland, the UN and the International Organization for Migration also sent observers.
Jeff Labovitz, head of the IOM’s Thailand office, told the AFP news agency he hoped those nations attending would come up with “practical suggestions on how to work together and how to stop trafficking or smuggling issues”.
But he added: “Problems won’t be solved in one meeting.”